real-deal baked skillet mac & cheese


Okay, so there have been a few takes on mac and cheese on green girl eats in the past. And they've been respectable, healthy options with a few swaps to amp up the good-for-you factor. One of them was even entirely cheeseless. And while this is a craving I try not to bend to too often, it was officially time for the real-deal. Long overdue, even: let there be cheese.

This is a harken back to the macaroni and cheese that my mom used to make, with the addition of a 375-degree oven and lots of herby bread crumbs.

For this recipe, you will need:

3 tablespoons organic unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
1/2-3/4 cup toasted herb bread crumbs (I made these prior by toasting some ciabatta crumbs in olive oil with garlic, oregano and lemon zest, but your favorite combination of herbs and spices will do)
2 1/2 cups organic milk (I used 1%)
3 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
Freshly ground nutmeg (optional, but g-o-o-d)
2 1/4 cups freshly grated organic cheese of choice (I went with a super sharp cheddar)
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese (bonus points if freshly grated, shrug of forgiveness if otherwise)
1/2 pound elbow macaroni (tiny shells are also a good choice)

So, one quick note: This is a pared down recipe because in this household, it's mac and cheese for one. So I made enough to cook a generous portion in one 6-inch cast iron skillet. You could easily eat this in one sitting. I'm not recommending it, I'm only saying. But should you be willing to show any sense of self-restraint, this would make about 3-4 generous servings. It also freezes great in individual portions for a last-minute lunch or dinner during a busy week.

Begin by preheating your oven to 375 degrees. Generously butter a 6-inch cast iron skillet or a small casserole dish and set aside. In a small-medium sauce pan over medium heat, add your 3 tablespoons of butter to melt down. Add your flour one tablespoon at a time, whisking to combine with each addition. (You'll have to work quickly to avoid burning.) Once all the flour is added, pour in your milk a little bit at a time (about 1/4 cup each time) and whisk thoroughly to smooth out any lumps. Continue this process, whisking constantly, until your beschamel base begins to bubble and thicken. This will take between 8-10 minutes. In the meantime, get your pasta water boiling (use 1/2 teaspoon of your salt).

Once bubbling away and spreadably thick, remove from the heat. Whisk in your pepper, nutmeg (if using), the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and your cheeses, reserving the 2 tablespoons of Parmesan. Whisk together until all your cheese has melted and set aside. Cook and drain your pasta, adding directly to the cheese sauce pot and folding together until each piece is coated in cheesy magical goodness. My advice to you would be to take a bite or two at this point, if you're the type that's into the saucy, gooey version of mac and cheese. It will change up a little bit in the oven, and it's totally worth these few first tastes.

Transfer to your prepared pan. Top with the remaining 2 tablespoons of Parmesan and your bread crumbs. Place in the oven for about 15-20 minutes or until the top has browned slightly and the cheese is bubbling.

I don't know where to begin praising this dish. As much as I love healthy eating and feeling good, there is something so differently good about eating foods like this (sometimes, of course, only sometimes). There's no replacing real cheese. There just isn't. I had this with some roasted tomatoes, but it would also pair great with steamed broccoli or a nice sturdy green, like collards. Next time!

Still want to try those other mac and cheese options?